At this year’s virtual State of the Coast conference, I enjoyed tuning into a range of great talks, including one by Zach Penney from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. In his presentation, “More Than a Tradition: Treaty rights and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Penney described a tribal “covenant with resources,” and noted the success of this approach — “You don’t live in a place for 15,000 years by messing it up.”
Indigenous management of resources in the Pacific Northwest dates back thousands of years. From oak savannahs to fisheries to fires, local tribes managed diverse natural systems long before colonial settlement of the area that is now Oregon. We know comparatively little, however, about how Indigenous groups in Oregon interacted with whale populations before the changes brought by colonialism and commercial whaling.
I’m curious about how this missing knowledge could inform our understanding of the coastal Oregon ecosystems in which many GEMM Lab projects take place. My graduate research will be part of the effort to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Penney’s talk, ongoing conversations about decolonizing science, and my own concerns about becoming the scientist that I want to be, have all led me to ask a new set of questions: What did humans know in the past about whale distributions along the Oregon coast? What lost knowledge can be reclaimed from history?
As I started reading about historical Indigenous whale use in Oregon, I was struck by how little we know today, and how this learning process became a multidisciplinary treasure hunt. Clues as to how Indigenous groups interacted with whales along the Oregon coast lie in oral histories, myths, journals, and archaeological artifacts.
Much of what I read hinged on the question: did Indigenous tribes in Oregon historically hunt whales? Many signs point to yes, but it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer conclusively. Marine systems and animals, including seals and whales, remain an important part of cultures in the Pacific Northwest today – but historically, documentation of hunting whales in Oregon has been limited. Whale bones have been found in coastal middens, and written accounts describe opportunistic harvests of beached whales. However, people have long believed that only a few North American tribes outside of the Arctic regularly hunted whales.
But in 2007, archaeologists Robert Losey and Dongya Yang found an artifact that started to shift this narrative. While studying a collection of tools housed at the Smithsonian Institution, they discovered the tip of a harpoon lodged in a whale flipper bone. This artifact came from the Partee site, which was inhabited around AD 300-1150 and is located near present-day Seaside, Oregon.
Through DNA testing, Losey and Yang determined that the harpoon was made of elk bone, and that the elk was not only harvested locally, but also used locally. This new piece of evidence suggested that whaling did in fact take place at the Partee site, likely by the Tillamook or Clatsop tribes that utilized this area.
Several years later, this discovery inspired Smithsonian Museum of Natural History archaeologist Torben Rick and University of Oregon PhD student Hannah Wellman to comb through the rest of the animal remains in the Smithsonian’s collection from northwest Oregon. Rick and Wellman scrutinized 187 whale bones for signs of hunting or processing, and found that about a quarter of the marks they inspected could have come from either hunting or the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales. They examined tools from the midden as well, and found that they were more suited to hunting animals, like seals and sea lions, or fishing.
However, Wellman and Rick also used DNA testing to identify which whale species were represented in the midden – and the DNA analyses suggested a different story. Genetic results revealed that the majority of whale bones in the midden came from gray whales, a third from humpback whales, and a few from orca and minke. Modern gray whale stranding events are not uncommon, and so it follows logically that these bones could have simply come from people harvesting beached whales. However, humpback strandings are rare – suggesting that such a large proportion of humpback bones in the midden is likely evidence of people actively hunting humpback whales.
These results shed new light on whale harvesting practices at the Partee Site, and, like so much research, they suggest a new set of questions. What does the fact that there were orca, minke, gray, and humpback whales off the Oregon coast 900 years ago tell us about the history of this ecosystem? Could artifacts that have not yet been found provide more conclusive evidence of hunting? What would it mean if these artifacts are found one day, or if they are never found?
As this fascinating research continues, I hope that new discoveries will continue to deepen our understanding of historic Indigenous whaling practices in Oregon – and that this information can find a place in contemporary conversations. Indigenous whaling rights are both a contemporary and contentious issue in the Pacific Northwest, and the way that humans learn about the past has much to do with how we shape the present.
What we learn about the past can also change how we understand this ecosystem today, and provide new context as we try to understand the impacts of climate change on whale populations in Oregon. I’m interested in how learning more about historical Indigenous whaling practices could provide more information about whale population baselines, ideas for management strategies, and a new lens on the importance of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Even if we can’t fully reclaim lost knowledge from history, maybe we can still read enough clues to help us see both the past and present more fully.
Braun, Ashley. “New Research Offers a Wider View on Indigenous North American Whaling.” Hakai Magazine, November 2016, www.hakaimagazine.com/news/new-research-offers-wider-view-indigenous-north-american-whaling/.
Eligon, John. “A Native Tribe Wants to Resume Whaling. Whale Defenders Are Divided.” New York Times, November 2019.
Hannah P. Wellman, Torben C. Rick, Antonia T. Rodrigues & Dongya Y. Yang (2017) Evaluating Ancient Whale Exploitation on the Northern Oregon Coast Through Ancient DNA and Zooarchaeological Analysis, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 12:2, 255-275, DOI: 10.1080/15564894.2016.1172382
Losey, R., & Yang, D. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American Antiquity, 72(4), 657-676. doi:10.2307/25470439
Sanchez, Gabriel (2014). Conference paper: Cetacean Hunting at the Par-Tee site (35CLT20)?: Ethnographic, Artifact and Blood Residue Analysis Investigation.